Chicago Soundings and Fulcrum Point Display Contemporary Music Flair

George Flynn hosts Chicago Soundings every few months. Photo by Al Brandtner.

Chicago composer George Flynn hosted the latest concert in the long running Chicago Soundings series on Tuesday night. Flynn was the head of the music composition department at DePaul University. In the early 1980s, he showcased new music with this and other performance events. After retiring from academia in 2010, he restarted Chicago Soundings, which now take place every few months at Queen of Angels Church in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood.

On the following night, the Fulcrum Point New Music Project, headed by Stephen Burns, convened Discoveries: Hear and Be Heard, an event where new music by emerging composers can be tried out, discussed, and improved. Listening in the audience are musicians, other composers, and the general public, who can follow along with the actual scores in hand. Snacks and beverages are also provided. Wednesday night offered a great opportunity to witness the creation process and hear composers’ inspiration for the works. Fulcrum Point regularly convenes Discoveries at the Merit School of Music in the west Loop.

Thomas Winthrop Stevens
Thomas Winthrop Stevens, composer and pianist. Photo courtesy of the composer.

The first half of Tuesday night’s Chicago Sounds concert was devoted to the piano. Thomas Winthrop Stevens started with the opening Adagio from his second piano sonata. It has the feel of a plaintive wanderer seeking a place to settle, stumbling along the way. Stevens returned later in the first half with two jazzy piano songs. In Until We Meet Again, he played the charming melody in careful balance with the background chords. This work was performed from fully laid out score. The second piece, a waltz entitled I’ll Remember Magnolia, was improvised over a set melody.

In between Stevens’ performances was Use Low Gear, an unusual piece for piano, four hands, by composer Amnon Wolman. Before the piece starts, heavy metal objects are placed over several bass sections of the piano’s strings, which make the piano more of a percussive instrument, reminiscent of a snare drum. On Tuesday night Pantelis Bolarakis played slow, rumbling passages up top, while Jeffrey Kowalkowski hammered out loud percussion notes down below. Then, after the objects were removed, the parts were sped up and reversed, with Kowalkowski playing the rumbling passages, while Bolarakis banged across the top. The piece was interesting, although the placement of the objects seemed a bit challenging.

The first half ended with Frank Abbinanti performing Verticals, an involved work by Chicago resident Shulamit Ran. Verticals is centered on the tone pattern established by eight notes that start the piece in a jarring, broken chord. As it goes on, these notes and patterns reappear in various constructs. The program notes mentioned that the piece has a structure similar to a traditional sonata movement, but, on first hearing, this wasn’t obvious. Abbinanti, who is also a composer, played with gusto and contrast, keeping it in your face as the variants to unfolded.

Amy Wurtz wrote and performed a song cycle of Pablo Neruda’s poetry. Photo by Jürgen Lieb.

The second half of the concert was devoted to a song cycle of Pablo Neruda’s poems by Chicago composer Amy Wurtz. Mariposa en arrullo: cinco poemas de Pablo Neruda features five poems from a collection of Neruda’s early works devoted to themes of love and despair.  Wurtz uses repetitive sound patterns that reappear in various places, particularly tremolo passages that give the work a shimmering effect. At times, it requires a rod to be placed on the piano strings to emulate the sounds of flying insects when the hammers hit the strings. As can happen in Wurtz’s music, one hears occasional moments of traditional tonality. The vocals are usually straightforward, although emphasis appears when words are spoken, whispered, or screamed. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Thompson gave a passionate and moving performance of the Spanish text, while the composer herself offered clear keyboard playing from the piano. Love and despair certainly permeated the air.

On Wednesday night the Fulcrum Point String Quartet, comprising violinists Mathias Tacke and Katheen Brauer, violist Cladie Lansareff-Mironoff, and cellist Mark Brandfonbrener, gave thoughtful performances of works composed by Zoë Holbrook and Joshua Marquez. Holbrook is still working on String Quartet No. 1, but the latest version of the first two movements were on offer. Marquez’ Cold Star, a work in three movements, was composed in 2013.

Holbrook’s work was inspired by the suicide of a close family member, and it bears the French title, L’Appel du Vide, or Call of the Void. The first movement shows its spots from the beginning with the first two notes forming one of the most dissonant musical intervals, the tri-tone. The music then trots along at a rapid pace, when, at various points, three of the instruments go quiet, while the fourth continues with a plaintive tune. As the composer explained in the score, each instrument has its own moment of looking at the void. The second movement has the feel of a slower lament, very passionate and soulful.

Zoë Holbrook and Stephen Burns. Photo by Meggy Huynh (1 of 1)
Zoë Holbrook discusses her String Quartet No. 1, as Stephen Burns looks on. Photo by Meggy Huynh.

Following the performance, the conversation focused on various elements of both movements, with a few passages repeated with differing treatments. Still working on the remaining movements, Holbrook is in the experimental phase of this quartet. It was interesting to see the composing process unfold.

Marquez’ work encapsulates the life cycle of a star. The first movement Proto describes the creation of star and features small musical intervals, rising phrases, glissandos, and overtone trills at a moderate tempo. The second movement Equilibrium shows the star fully formed at a slightly faster tempo, with very little movement in the musical phrasing, but lots of changes in volume and bowing texture within each note. The finale White Dwarf shows the star at its final phase, with the use of heavy vibrato and passages of aural bursts of sounds broken up by silence at the same tempo of the opening movement.

Joshua Marquez and Fulcrum Piont String Quartet. Photo by Meggy Huynh.
Joshua Marquez discusses Cold Star, with the Fulcrum Point String Quartet. Photo by Meggy Huynh.

There was considerable discussion afterward over how the second movement ends. It is a phrase formed when each instrument plays a single note, first violin down to the cello, at a slightly syncopated moment from the previous note several times. The passage is repeated eight times at increasing tempos. In performance, it had a startling effect, and discussion focused on the appropriate tempos and scoring.

The next Chicago Soundings concert will take place on Tuesday, December 5, at 7:30pm, at Queen of Angels Church, 2330 W. Sunnyside Ave. Fulcrum Point’s next Discoveries: Hear and be Heard will take place on Wednesday, November 15, at 6pm, at Merit School of Music, 38 S. Peoria St.

Louis Harris
Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world.

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